Viruses past, present and future

Nepal’s history shows that nature matters in dealing with epidemics but, social differences do, too

Although smallpox is now ‘unfamiliar to the world today’ historian Elizabeth Fenn has written that it was ‘a misery commonplace in years gone by.’

For centuries, the smallpox virus and the gruesome death and destruction it caused upended people's lives around the world and in Nepal. In this History of Disease series in Nepali Times in the past month I have recounted how smallpox traveled and killed in Europe and America, became a terrible test for survival for children in South Asia, and  struck down both royals and regular citizens in Nepal in the 19th century.

We have seen how people devised inoculation and vaccination to fight the disease, and how vaccines and strong surveillance helped eradicate the disease around the world and in Nepal in the 1970s, but only 'by the slimmest of margins'.

Several things about the history of the disease deserve special emphasis. As much as any influential king or prime minister, we sometimes forget that smallpox and other diseases shaped the course of human events.

Part I: Big story of smallpox in Nepal

Part II: The smallpox virus in British India

Part III: Smallpox, politics and power in Kathmandu

Part IV: How Nepal eradicated the smallpox virus


Viruses such as measles, influenza, hepatitis, polio, rabies, and HIV – as well as non-viral diseases such as cholera, TB, syphilis, and malaria – remade not just individual lives, but also physical, economic, and political landscapes.

The fury of smallpox reminds us of the inescapable power of nature. Despite all our efforts, humans are part of nature, and life is fragile.We are living beings made up of cells and nutrients, subject to the rules of geography and biology, death and disease. This reality held true in the past, and holds true today, as much as we hope otherwise. Smallpox may have been chased away, but COVID-19 stands at the doorstep.

Each disease has its own characteristics, its own biological personality, its own way of spreading through society and attacking human bodies. Malaria moved via mosquitoes which liked warm weather, cholera through germs in water, and syphilis through sex. Due to these differences, each disease left its own unique imprint on history.

Big story of small pox in Nepal, Tom Robertson

Smallpox spread through the air, moved easily from person to person, caused searing pain, and, if it did not kill, left behind disfigured, broken human bodies. In Nepal, if it had struck older people, not children, or if it had not left its victim's faces scarred and their eyes damaged, it might have brought less terror.

On the other hand, if it had had a reservoir in animals (as many viruses do) it would have been much harder to eliminate, and we might still be facing its burning fevers and excruciating rashes today. Small pox’s particular biology shaped history in a particular way.

Nature is not just a passive stage on which we humans act out our dramas as we wish. Instead, it is an actor in every drama, sometimes in the background, sometimes centerstage, but often coming and going at its own will, not ours.

The smallpox virus in Nepal, Tom Robertson

Looking back, if we recount the stories just of kings and queens and their political chess matches, we overlook some of history's main drivers and its most important stories. In fact, if we overlook disease history we will not understand the stories of kings and queens as well as we think. Can we really tell the history of Rana Bahadur, Girvana, Bimsen Thapa, and Bir Shumshere -- much less the stories of ordinary people around the country -- without understanding the central role of disease?

Looking forward, we would do well not to forget nature's power to completely take over the course of events. Smallpox also reminds us that, even though humans share the same biology, diseases often affect some subsets of society more than others, particularly those with less money and power. In other words, biological forces may be universal but they play out in social landscapes as complex and uneven as Nepal's dadakada.

In the Americas, smallpox even more than guns, gave Europeans a huge advantage over the indigenous people who had never encountered the disease before, and thus lacked immunity. In colonial India, smallpox and ideas about how to treat it divided the British from Indians more than it brought them together.

In Nepal, smallpox preyed upon both rich and poor, powerful and powerless alike. But as the 19th century Newar song 'Sitalamaaju Mye' reminds us, it divided Gorkha conquerors and Newar families. Smallpox shaped power struggles between Bhimsen Thapa and his political rivals, and later, in the effort at eradication, altered relations between government health workers and individuals from impoverished ethnic minorities.

Smallpox, politics and power in Kathmandu, Tom Robertson 

No doubt, smallpox also shaped gender relations in ways we need more historical research on. Just as differences between diseases mattered in the course of history, so, too, did social differences.

Nepal's successful effort to eradicate smallpox in the 1960s and 1970s seems particularly relevant to us today. Nepal's last case in 1975 shows what it took to banish a complex disease in challenging circumstances: sustained governmental focus and coordination, adequate long-term funding, scientific knowledge, talented and dedicated staff, careful record keeping, program flexibility and adaptation to local culture and conditions, and dogged surveillance.

Yet even at this moment of seeming human control, nature's power was on display. Smallpox eradication happened only with help from nature. Compared to malaria and polio, smallpox was relatively easy to control. It was so intense that it was easy to spot, and that intensity also made it difficult for contagious victims to move around infecting others. Smallpox did not strike a person twice. And unlike other viruses, it proved very susceptible to a vaccine. This history suggests some of the special challenges that COVID-19 poses.

Here, too, social difference mattered. Nepal's eradication campaign shows the enormous challenge of protecting individual rights in moments of public health crisis. In Nepal and other South Asian countries, government personnel sometimes used violence to force citizens to get vaccinated. Some health workers grew so convinced of their righteousness -- the 'purity of purpose' in one man's self-description -- that they felt comfortable steamrolling the wishes of others, often people from socially marginalised groups with little say in society to begin with.

How Nepal eradicated the smallpox virus, Tom Robertson

Such coercion probably could have been avoided through more nimble policies, more extensive training, and better public education. Problems often sprouted, the historian David Arnold noted, when doctors and other health workers didn't understand how ordinary people saw the world and quickly dismissed their concerns as backward or superstitious -- when, as he put it, the medical system had grown ‘culturally and politically distant from the lives of its subjects’.

In the end, the history of smallpox shows the fragility of life, but also the power of human perseverance. Smallpox struck down one of every three it infected. It stole beautiful children from their mothers and fathers. It stole sight from survivors. In some places, it wiped out entire families and laid waste to whole villages. It was deadly, ruthless, and horrific. It sometimes brought out the worst in human nature.

But it also often spurred great ingenuity, compassion, togetherness, and resilience. In the face of disease, humans have found surprising ways to support each other, learn from the past, endure the suffering of the present, and find hope again in the future.

This is the fifth article in the series History of Disease. The next column will deal with danger of dengue in Nepal. Tom Robertson, PhD, is researching the environmental history of Kathmandu Valley.

Read other articles on smallpox in Tom Robertson’s History of Disease series in Nepali Times.

Tom Robertson


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